Rustin (2023, dir. George C. Wolfe)

by | Nov 17, 2023

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 106 mins

UK Distributor: Netflix

UK Release Date: 17 November 2023

WHO’S IN RUSTIN?

Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Aml Ameen, CCH Pounder, Michael Potts, Jeffrey Wright, Audra McDonald, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Bill Irwin, Gus Halper, Johnny Ramey, Lilli Kay, Jordan-Amanda Hall, Jakeem Powell, Grantham Coleman, Jamilah Rosemond, Jules Latimer, Maxwell Whittington-Cooper, Frank Harts, Kevin Mambo, Cotter Smith, Carra Patterson, Adrienne Warren, Ayana Workman

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

George C. Wolfe (director), Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black (writers), Bruce Cohen and Tonia Davis (producers), Branford Marsalis (composer), Tobias Schliessler (cinematographer), Andrew Mondshein (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin (Domingo) organises the historic March on Washington…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON RUSTIN?

The historic March on Washington in the summer of 1963 is best remembered for a number of things, among them Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech, those iconic photographs of the Lincoln Memorial swarmed with participants, and singer Mahalia Jackson’s rousing hymn performances on the same stage as Dr. King. None would be possible, though, without Bayard Rustin and his dedication to furthering the Civil Rights Movement toward such a monumental culmination, but for a number of reasons his contributions to the event have remained firmly under the radar in history books.

Rustin finally receives his dues in director George C. Wolfe’s new biopic, which nobly outlines the activist’s role in the historic March on Washington, as well as his relationships with several prominent Civil Rights figures, but eventually settles for a conventional structure that leaves its otherwise powerful themes at surface level. Nevertheless, it is a decent effort that means well, with a mesmerising lead performance anchoring it all the way, even if the rest of the film struggles to truly stand out.

The film begins in 1960, as Rustin (Colman Domingo) is unceremoniously booted from the NAACP, as led at the time by Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock in a rare dramatic turn), after an attempt to resign in protest after they strike down his plans for peaceful protest backfires tremendously. Three years later, Rustin is in a job he hates, and facing persecution not just for the colour of his skin, but also for the fact that he is an openly gay man, and in a relationship with his younger white assistant Tom (Gus Halper). Soon, though, Rustin has a lightbulb moment that of course results in him planning the March on Washington, and through his friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen) – which was damaged after Rustin’s earlier sacking – he manages to rally fellow civil rights activists to his cause, and within weeks creates the foundations that would lead to the historic march.

Much of the buzz surrounding this film has been fixated on Colman Domingo’s lead performance as Bayard Rustin, and everything you’ve probably already heard about him is indeed accurate. Domingo is truly excellent in this film, in a role that gives the actor an enormous amount of free reign to exhume enough charisma to fill the entire surrounding area of the Lincoln Memorial (where, of course, the central event was held). The character’s drive and passion for this cause is so strong that it’s entirely believable why others would drop everything to help make it a reality, and Domingo is so compelling in the part that he makes it easy for just about anyone to get behind his crazy ideas, whether it’s other supporting characters or the viewers themselves. He also lends a real sense of charm in romantic scenes, to where it is once again entirely justifiable why anyone, from assistant Tom to closeted preacher Elias (Johnny Ramey), would be attracted to his presence.

Domingo really does dominate Rustin, but the rest of the film struggles to leave just as deep a mark. The script, co-written by Julian Breece and Oscar-winning Milk scribe Dustin Lance Black, has a very light structure that simplifies a lot of the events leading up to the March on Washington, including blowback from both the NAACP and the authorities, as well as the lengths that Rustin ultimately went to in order secure the historic number of attendees. It also prevents many other characters outside of Rustin himself from feeling fully developed within the narrative, including Chris Rock whose performance is fine but is still playing a character who at times feels unnecessarily antagonistic. Likewise, Aml Ameen is very good as Dr. King, but his relationship with Rustin is underdeveloped, to where it feels like there’s a whole reel missing right at the beginning that further elaborates on their close friendship, despite it being a key component throughout the rest of the film.

The script isn’t without its interesting angles, particularly as it explores the hypocrisy surrounding the prejudice towards homosexuals by people fighting to have their racial identity accepted in society. However, the writing often plays it very safe, falling too deeply into conventional biopic territory for it to be as world-changing as many of the depicted figures ultimately ended up being. If you’re looking for a biopic about a civil rights hero that actually does take the time to focus on its characters and the emotional impact of the situation, I’d honestly recommend Chinonye Chukwu’s Till over this one, for it is a richer and more provocative film about the cause than this film is.

However, unlike the shocking Oscar snub of Till’s lead actor Danielle Deadwyler, I doubt that Colman Domingo’s mesmerising turn will be ignored by the Academy, for he truly makes this otherwise noble but by-the-numbers civil rights biopic soar.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Rustin is a noble but conventional civil rights biopic that is domineered by Colman Domingo’s astounding lead performance, which easily carries an otherwise by-the-numbers script that lacks the raw emotional power that this person’s life story deserves.

Three out of five stars

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